Robinson-Shuba Statue Guided by Fate, Project Creator Says

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – From the moment he learned about “the handshake of the century,” Eric Planey believed that a statue should be erected in Youngstown to commemorate it.

But after witnessing several cases of what he calls “Youngstown karma” while pursuing the project, he knew the statue was meant to be.

Planey is the Youngstown native who conceived of the statue project, spearheaded it out of the starting gate and shepherded it to completion.

A banker who lives in New York, Planey said any time the project hit an obstacle, a serendipitous meeting would propel it forward – and it always came from a Youngstown connection.

The statue, created by acclaimed Connecticut sculptor Marc Mellon, was unveiled this morning at its site in Wean Park, downtown. It depicts the moment in 1946 when Jackie Robinson, the first Black player to break through Major League Baseball’s race barrier, was congratulated at home plate by his White teammate, George “Shotgun” Shuba of Youngstown. The moment, when both were minor-league players with the Montreal Royals, was captured on film and came to represent racial harmony and teamwork during a fraught period of American history.

The story of the statue in Youngstown began in 2014, when Planey was in Washington, D.C., on a work trip. One evening, he visited his brother in nearby Alexandria, Va., at a youth baseball field where his niece was playing a game.

It was there that he met one of the youth team’s coaches, an 80-year-old man named Tom. In the first twist of fate, Tom also happened to be a Youngstown native and two got to talking.

“He told me that he grew up just down the street from Shotgun Shuba,” Planey said, “and I kept thinking, ‘Who is Shotgun Shuba?’

“That night, I looked him up on the internet. And then I was blown away by the fact that the only man who shook Jackie Robinson’s hand in that moment has never been honored in his hometown by a statue or even a plaque.”

Planey set out to change that. He called Councilman Julius Oliver with his idea for a statue. Oliver loved the idea and resolved to help bring it to fruition.

It wasn’t until 2018 that Planey called Louis Zona, director of The Butler Institute of American Art, for advice on how to proceed.

“Lou is a big baseball fan and knew all about the handshake,” Planey said. “He said, ‘You’ll need a really good sculptor. I know someone, but it will be expensive.’”

Zona recommended Mellon for the statue project, which had a $400,000 price tag. Later that year, Planey met with Oliver, Zona and Mike Garvey, owner of M-7 Technologies, to lay the groundwork. A committee of 10 local leaders was formed, with three project co-chairmen and two advisors.

Another “Youngstown karma” moment came before the project was made public. Planey had already received the approval of Mike Shuba, son of the late George Shuba and a Youngstown resident. 

But he had no luck contacting the family of the late Jackie Robinson for its approval and support.

One evening, Planey was dining at a restaurant in New York and spotted an acquaintance who is an official with the MLB He approached him and told him about the statue project.

“When I told him it would be in Youngstown, Ohio, his jaw dropped,” Planey said. “He said ‘I was born in Youngstown. What do you need from Major League Baseball?’”

Planey explained that he needed help contacting the Robinson family.

“And that’s when my jaw dropped,” he said. “Because the woman that he was dining with said that she knows the Robinsons and had just spoken with them a week ago.”

Planey was put in contact with the Robinsons and one week later he had their consent.

News of the closing of the GM Lordstown plant in early 2019 forced the committee to delay announcing the project until that summer. Spurred by articles in several national media outlets and a wave of positivity, fundraising started off strong.

But then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which Planey – using a baseball analogy –  called “the mother of all rain delays.” Fundraising became a lot tougher and threatened to stall the project until another “Youngstown karma” moment happened.

After “CBS Sunday Morning” aired a segment on the project in September 2020, the Marie Lamfrom Charitable Foundation of Oregon called with a $175,000 donation that put the fundraising drive over the top.

The co-founder of the foundation, Sally Bany, saw the TV segment and promptly approved a grant. She was moved by what the project represented and felt a kinship to Youngstown because her father, Neal Boyle, was from the city.

Cost overruns would raise the statue price above its original estimate, but the momentum of the project at this point meant the additional funding was quickly raised. Planey and the committee also received pro bono assistance from several Youngstown companies and professionals, reducing expenses.

Now that the monument has been unveiled, Planey – who attended the ceremony today – said it feels “fantastic.” The monument site, which is inspired by the look of a baseball park, “is incredible,” he said. 

Planey grew up on the South Side and graduated from Bowling Green State University. He worked as a banker in New York, returned to his hometown from 2009 to 2013 to work as vice president of the Youngstown/Warren Regional Chamber and then moved back to New York.

He loves his hometown and credits it for his own success.

“My heart is in Youngstown,” he said. “Growing up in that city gives you intelligence, street smarts and culture that you don’t get anywhere else, and it’s fun to pay it forward.”

Pictured: Eric Planey started the work to create a statue of Youngstown native George Shuba and Jackie Robinson.

Copyright 2022 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.